St. Philip Neri and the God Who Dwells With Men

The Vision of St. Philip Neri, Giovanni Camillo Sagrestani (Source)

“Behold the tabernacle of God with men, and he will dwell with them. And they shall be his people; and God himself with them shall be their God.” – Revelation 21:3

St. Philip’s feast always falls within that sunny period of the Church’s year when, passing from Easter to Ascensiontide and following on to Pentecost and Corpus Christi, we find our days running over with the majesty of these great mysteries. The days grow longer, and so they seem to grow more golden with the ever-descending light of the Holy Ghost. We are in a season of peculiar glory. The culminating lesson of these mysteries is clear: God has made his dwelling among men, and in the midst of His people shall He reign.

St. Philip receives the Holy Ghost while at prayer in the catacombs. (Source)

St. Philip knew this truth well. His whole life could well be described as a journey between Pentecost and Corpus Christi, the two feasts that most clearly teach us of God’s enduring presence in His Church. It was on the Vigil of Pentecost, 1544, that St. Philip received the grace that would define his vocation and the character of his sanctity. While praying in the catacombs of San Sebastiano, the Holy Ghost descended into St. Philip’s heart visibly and sensibly in the form of a ball of fire. This experience, which provided as much heat and pain as rapturous joy, marked the true beginning of St. Philip’s active ministry. In St. Philip, the Holy Ghost once again made His dwelling among men.

St. Philip Neri Receiving the Holy Spirit in the Catacombs of St. Sebastian, Francesco Solimena (Source)

From then on, St. Philip’s whole life would be marked by a singular union with the Holy Ghost. He became the “tabernacle of the Most High” and a living fountain of graces. His many miracles testify to the indwelling of the Spirit within him. So does his manifest oddity, his clear and salutary estrangement from the ways and works of ordinary men. The prophet writes, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.” So does the Holy Ghost speak from the heart of St. Philip. For this reason, the Church applies the words of St. Paul to the new Apostle of Rome:

The love of God has been poured into our hearts
through the Spirit of God dwelling within us

Introit for the Feast of St. Philip Neri

St. Philip’s priestly life was marked by the overwhelming presence of God. Everything about him spoke to the present reality of the supernatural. This reality took two chief forms. The most famous were the astounding miracles wrought by St. Philip – most notably the raising of Prince Paolo Massimo from the dead. But there was also St. Philip’s profound adoration of the Eucharist. His popularization of the Forty Hours’ Devotion was but the visible extension of his love of the Blessed Sacrament. So too were the Eucharistic ecstasies to which he was increasingly susceptible as he became older. St. Philip knew no sweeter hours than those that he spent at Mass as an old man, kneeling in darkness before the altar, lost in the rarefied heights of a contemplation we can barely begin to fathom.

Engraving of St. Philip Neri, Hieronymus Frezza (Source)

One particularly perceptive observer has written:

In recalling the holiness of Saint Philip, it occurs to me that it was essentially this: he was all priest. He was always and everywhere a priest. His priesthood suffused his very being, making him incandescent with the fire of the Cross and of the altar.

Vultus Christi

St. Philip’s extraordinary endowment with the Spirit was ordered towards his life as a priest – namely, towards the glory of God in the Eucharist. This is the case with all of us. The Spirit, God in us, is given precisely for us to receive the Eucharist, God with us. Confirmation, like all the other sacraments, exists with the Eucharist as its proper telos.

The Mass of St. Philip Neri, Circle of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (Source)

How fitting, then, that St. Philip should pass into eternal life when he did. May the 25th, 1595, was the feast of Corpus Christi. As Fr. Faber has it,

Day set on Rome! its golden morn
Had seen the world’s Creator borne
Around St. Peter’s square
Trembling and weeping all the way,
God’s Vicar with his God that day
Made pageant brave and rare!

“St. Philip’s Death,” F.W. Faber

Providence often grants the saints a Christ-like death. It is a sign that, even in suffering and death, God is still dwelling with us. St. Benedict died in choro during a liturgy, just as Christ died in the fulfillment of His high priesthood. Many martyrdoms were accompanied by strange signs and mystical evocations of the Sacrifice of Christ. It should be no surprise that God would take St. Philip in a similarly edifying manner.

The Death of St. Benedict, F. Rosaspina, 1830, after D.M. Canuti. (Source)

In his death, St. Philip reminds us that we are all meant to imitate Christ in His Sacrifice, that is, in the Blessed Sacrament. There is no more perfect pedagogue in the life of the Spirit than the Son, who has presented Himself to us on all the altars of the world. Would that we might take this lesson to heart!

St. Philip died when he did because, by a singular grace of Providence, God was pleased to mark His servant’s passing with the Church’s celebration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Just as St. Philip honored the Eucharistic God in his life, so did the Eucharistic God honor him in his death.

We, too, can honor the saint best by cleaving to the Lord. St. Philip’s words to a spiritual daughter are as true today as they once were:

“Let us concentrate ourselves so completely in the divine love, and enter so far into the living fountain of wisdom, through the wounded Side of our Incarnate God, that we may deny ourselves and our self-love, and so be unable to find our way out of that Wound again.”

St. Philip Neri

God dwells with us just as He once dwelt in the blessed heart of St. Philip. He comes to us just as He came once to the priestly hands of St. Philip. Let us abide in Him, just as St. Philip did once and does forevermore in the heights of Heaven.

Votive image of St. Philip Neri from the British Museum. As they have it: “St Philip Neri kneeling on a cloud in front of altar; angel to right holding tray with burning hearts and ascending towards Holy Trinity; Virgin Mary mediating surrounded by angels, after Maella. 1801 Engraving, printed on silk.” Note the Eucharist enthroned in a monstrance. (Source)
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My Favorite Hymn to St. Philip Neri

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St. Philip, pray for us (Source)

As my readers will well know, St. Philip Neri is my favorite saint and has been for a long while now. I take every opportunity I can to sing his praises on this blog, and today happens to be one of them. In Oxford, we are celebrating the Feast of the Patronage of St. Philip, a local solemnity that honors the canonical erection of the house here as a Congregation of the Oratory. Please pray for the Oxford Fathers on this, their silver jubilee.

To celebrate, here is my favorite hymn to the Apostle of Rome – Pangamus Nerio, as sung by the choir of the Birmingham Oratory. It is the vesperal hymn of St. Philip.

Pangamus Nerio, debita cantica
Quem, supra nitidi sydera verticis,
Virtus et meritum sustulit inclytum,
Carpturum pia gaudia.

Noctes sub spectabus, corpora martyrum,
Quas implent, vigilat sedulus integras,
Ex ipsis satagens discere mortuis
Normam qua bene viveret.

Nocte dum Nereus fercula pauperi,
Gestans praecipitat, panniger Angelus
Tecto significat, qualiter excidat
Numquam fervida caritas.

Orantis penetrans cordis in intimum,
Laxavit spatium Spiritus impete
De Coelo veniens, esset ut hospiti
Immenso locus amplior!

Coelorum Domino, dum sacra munera
Libabat Nerius, saepius advolans,
Tellurem rapido corpore deserit,
Christo fiat ut obvius!

Corpus deseruit, cum Deus Hostiae
Fertur sub niveae tegmine conditus,
Prudens, in Patriam, pergere splendide
Nolens absque Viatico.

Amen.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an English translation (nor the time and energy to translate from the original myself). Alas.

May St. Philip Neri pray for Oxford, for the Oratorians there, and for all of us who call upon him in filial affection.

 

Oratorian Oratorios: A Study in Music, Devotion, and Enlightenment

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The Vision of St. Philip Neri, artist unknown. (Source)

One of the clearest elements of Oratorianism is its outstanding aesthetic tradition. From the very beginnings of St. Philip’s Congregation, the Oratory has fostered the leading artists and composers of every era. Rubens, Caravaggio, Pietro da Cortona, and others competed to fill the Chiesa Nuova with glorious baroque paintings and frescos. The exercises of the Oratory were accompanied from its earliest iterations by the airs of Animuccia and Palestrina.

In the 17th and 18th century, the Oratory reached its high noon. In his 1965 book, The Idea of the Oratory, Fr. Raleigh Addington of the London Oratory traces the history of St. Philip’s family. He shows how it spread rapidly through Italy and Spain, as well as other parts of the Catholic world as far afield as Mexico and Ceylon. Even relatively small towns had Oratories. While few of these houses have survived the French Revolution, Italian Unification, and two World Wars, we can nevertheless catch a glimpse of that world. Let us examine the way that various 18th century composers promoted the cult of St. Philip Neri in an increasingly Enlightened world.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s San Filippo Neri (1705)

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Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) when he was Maestro di Capello of the Viceroy of Naples (Source)

The aforementioned accompaniment written by Animuccia and Palestrina eventually turned into a new musical genre: the oratorio, named for the Oratory. The very first oratorio proper was staged at the Roman Oratory in 1600. Rappresentatione di anima et di corpo, by Emilio de’ Cavalieri, opens with a stirring exhortation by a baritone representing the voice of Time. His message – “Il tempo, il tempo fugge” – could have come from St. Philip himself. Good Philip went about Rome encouraging those he met “to begin to do good.” This sense of immediacy, even urgency, was inherited by some of his sons, most notably Father Faber of London.

But Cavalieri’s work would hardly be the last Oratorian oratorio. Take, if you will, the Sicilian Alessandro Scarlatti’s 1705 oratorio, San Filippo Neri. It narrates Philip’s life by examining several episodes of his story through a dialogue conducted between the eponymous saint and women representing the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope, and Charity. It is a strange piece, an allegory that blurs the lines between interior and exterior action.

And what a tonal difference a century makes! While Cavalieri’s work still shares something of the dramatic chiaroscuro that marked the Counter-Reformation era, Scarlatti’s oratorio soars into the confidence and optimism of the Age of Enlightenment. Each movements brims with airy light. Scarlatti, who would have known the Oratorians, or Girolamini, of Naples, manages to capture something of St. Philip’s own bounding spirit in the score.

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Portrait of Pietro Cardinal Ottoboni by Francesco Treviso, c. 1689. Now in County Durham, England. (Source)

The work represents a significant collaboration between Scarlatti and Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni. A Venetian who spent much of his career in Rome, Ottoboni is a formidable figure in the history of early modern Catholicism, Italy, and art. He was renowned for his exquisite taste, and he amassed a vast collection of the finest paintings he could lay his hands on. He fostered the careers of several composers, including Antonio Vivaldi, whom Scarlatti resembles in certain formal respects. Ottoboni may not have been a very holy man (Baron de Montesquieu asserted that he sired “between 60 and 70 children. Portraits of his mistresses as saints, like Margarita Pio Zeno of Savoy (1670-1725), decorated his bedroom”). Nevertheless, he was pious enough to write a theologically sound libretto for Scarlatti’s oratorio.

Ottoboni seems to have had a devotion to St. Philip. At the very least, he was able to compose thoroughly hagiographical lyrics. In movements 10 and 11, Charity sings:

Come then to temple of the Almighty
that bears both my and Jerome’s name;
and united by your zeal,
let a crowd of faithful followers
distribute all around
the torches of your flame,
so that, repentant and disdaining Avernus,
these beloved souls, once led astray,
in this bright light
may wing their way to heaven.
You shall be a star,
surpassing all others
while you live here on earth among the shadows;
but when that blessed day arrives,
your flame that now is hidden among the shadows
will be a sun, as once it was a star.
You shall be, etc

Thus we hear of the Oratory’s foundation at San Girolamo della Carità. Here we can see some borrowing from liturgical forms of music. The repetition of “You shall be a star, etc.” in movement 11, repeated throughout the piece on every odd movement, resembles the doubled use of Psalm antiphons in the Divine Office. Whether this came from Scarlatti, Ottoboni, or some other formal precedent, I cannot say.

Ottoboni’s libretto is also colored by some imaginative idiosyncracies. For instance, he has St. Philip announce with some lamentation,

Oh how the memory
of my dearest fatherland,
awakens the force of love in my breast!
Ah, who will give my heart wings
to see once more my beloved native soil?
But what have I said, oh God?
Ah, my weakness has taken me far from your
presence, and on a mortal object
I am tempted to fix my gaze.
Yet I am not slow in returning to my former
centre, for wherever I am I always find in you my
native land.

St. Philip follows up this resolution with a brief meditation:

The dove that flies
far from her nest
is consoled
when she returns
to her nest.
The dove, etc.
Ottoboni must have known the Roman Oratorians well. His little verse captures two features of the spirituality St. Philip left to his sons: devotion to the Holy Spirit (“The dove”) and domestic stability (“Nest,” literally “Nido” in the original Italian, a word that has come down the centuries as a summary of the Vita Oratoriana).

ScarlattiVelardi

This is a very good recording. And you can get it on Spotify! (Source)

Scarlatti and Ottoboni wrote their piece at a time when the Oratory was expanding rapidly. For comparison, we might examine music that comes from the end of that era.

Pasquale Anfossi’s La Morte di San Filippo Neri (1796)

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Pasquale Anfossi (1727-1797). (Source)

It is perhaps appropriate that, in a period of turbulence and contraction for the Oratory, a piece about St. Philip’s death should be composed. Indeed, Pasquale Anfossi premiered his oratorio 201 years after the saint’s passage into glory, one year before his own death, and in the very same year as Napeoleon’s invasion of Italy. That intrusion would have far-reaching effects for the Church at large (see Ulrich Lehner’s Conclusion in The Catholic Enlightenment, 2016).

The piece (or at least, what I can occasionally find of what seems to be the only recording available) is pleasant enough. Anfossi, though largely forgotten today, was quite popular in his own era. He was particularly well known as the composer of many operas. I confess that I don’t find his work all that striking next to that of some of his contemporaries – e.g. Mozart. But he gave us some nice arias all the same.

Since I cannot find Carlo Antonio Femi’s libretto, I won’t comment on the oratorio’s substantive devotional or theological merits. It does strike me, however, that there seems to be a significant difference in structure between the two. In the Scarlatti/Ottoboni oratorio, we are treated to personifications of the three Theological Virtues in dialogue with St. Philip himself. In Anfossi/Femi, we instead have the interaction of “Amor,” “Santita,” “Religione,” and a tenor, “Genio.”

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Love, Sanctity, and Religion singing to Genius. (Source)

In 1705, the allegory centers on the person of St. Philip and those virtues he enacted and embodied. In 1796, all of the parts represent abstractions. The libretto may well be about St. Philip, but he does not appear. If “Genio” is supposed to represent him, then Anfossi and Femi are introducing a classically pagan conceptthe personal genius or daemonto stand in for Philip instead of the saint himself. The tendency towards abstraction is not entirely foreign to allegory. After all, even the Rappresentatione of 1600 centers on a dialogue between Body and Soul. But the Rappresentatione wasn’t about a saint. Anfossi’s oratorio ostensibly is. To my knowledge, it’s rather unusual in early modern hagiography to divorce the piece from its ostensible subject.

Yet it is entirely typical of Enlightenment discourse. Throughout the Enlightenment, we see a discursive move away from personhood and all the messy particularity it entails, even as we see new emphasis on a universalizable individualism. By the time Anfossi wrote and premiered La Morte di San Filippo Neri, Edmund Burke had already famously railed against the Jacobins as ideologues of unworkable abstractions that they foisted on real people.

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The 2014 Polish recording of Anfossi’s The Death of Saint Philip Neri. (Source)

I don’t know enough about Anfossi’s other work to know what kinds of values he sought to express. But I would wager on the basis of this peculiar, overly-allegorized oratorio, that he may well be a Catholic Enlightener. Wikipedia, bastion of Definite Truth, relates that he “worked mainly in London, Venice and Rome.” Surely he would have interacted with Enlightened Catholics in some of those environments. The Catholics of London in particular would have been decidedly given over to the liberal spirit of the age. He premiered his first piece there in 1782, the very same year that the anti-Papal Catholic Committee convened for the first time to fight for Emancipation. Might he have known its leaders? And what kinds of contacts did he maintain with non-Catholic Enlighteners in London? For now, we cannot know.

If Anfossi was truly something of a Catholic Enlightener, then we must find a cruel irony in the fact that one of his last oratorios should premier in Papal Rome just before itand so many Italian Oratoriescame crashing down under Napoleon’s enlightenment-by-force.

The Saint Who Sings
The difference between the two oratorios, written at opposite ends of the 18th century, is startling. Both ostensibly further the cult of St. Philip Neri; the approach they take, however, suggests a major shift over the course of the decades. While Scarlatti’s piece hews closely to hagiographic norms, Anfossi’s seems to break from them by injecting a dose of Enlightenment abstraction into what might otherwise be a fairly typical allegory. The presence of St. Philip as a character in the former suggests both a deep devotion and an incarnational personalism proper to the Oratorian spirit. His absence in the latter would seem to suggest that sanctity, rather than growing from the personal embodiment of the virtues, consists in the interaction of broader spiritual qualities with individual genius. Further study of devotional music about St. Philip from across the 18th century could confirm whether the observable difference between the two oratorios represents a broader shift in hagiography influenced by the Catholic Enlightenment.